Deutsch recalls that roughly 40,000 ancient coins were discovered in Jerusalem in the 1960s and 1970s. The vast majority will never be displayed, because no one wants to look at the same coin over and over. (Imagine the billing of a museum show based on them: "Coins. Lots of Coins. Lots and Lots of Coins.") The same principle applies to oil lamps, pottery and statute fragments -- and much else.
Therefore, many items sit in museum storage areas to rot -- sometimes literally. The University of Arizona Museum has 20,000 pieces of pottery that have languished in buildings with improper environmental controls. "About a third of our collection has been damaged, and there are collections elsewhere that have been completely destroyed by the same process," a museum official has told the Arizona Daily Star.
"Items that are in private hands are much more secure than what's in the basement of the museum," says Deutsch.
Erdal Dere, an owner of Fortuna Fine Arts in Manhattan, gives an example. Thousands of ushabtis -- ancient ceramic figurines -- are packed on top of each other in the basements of Egyptian museums. Once they are cataloged, why shouldn't they be sold, to be displayed and enjoyed? "What's the point," asks Dere, "in having thousands of these figurines in boxes and storage facilities?"
That is considered heresy by most archeologists, and by the same sophisticates who gave us the premature reports of the death of the Iraqi National Museum.